Wideman's 'Hoop': personal intensity

October 14, 2001|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun Staff

Hoop Roots, by John Edgar Wideman. Houghton Mifflin. 244 pages. $24.

The promotional blurbs for Hoop Roots promise John Edgar Wideman's take on "basketball, its roots in his life and our culture."

That's not true. More accurate is Wideman's own warning, in the first chapter: "Whatever you make of this book, I need it." Hoop Roots is about and for the author, a celebrated writer, former Rhodes Scholar and MacArthur grantee who teaches English at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

An unconventional memoir, Hoop Roots is at times evocative and provocative, bristling with intensely personal revelations. These are bracketed by poetic descriptions of the game he loves, but has had to give up in deference to his age (60). The passion is hereditary: his daughter, Jamila Wideman, was an All-American at Stanford University and played for several years in the WNBA before getting cut and going to law school.

Her father's basketball is not the corporate extravaganza of the WNBA, or even the NBA, and readers looking for that will be disappointed. Wideman's game is a personal, sweaty backdrop for self-exploration and African-American racial identity.

These he examines in the fast-break style of the street hoop he celebrates. The tone, point of view and subject abruptly bounce across the pages like a rebound darting from one outstretched fingertip to another. Conventions of grammar, punctuation and plot are flouted with liberating result.

He was, we learn, "raised in a household of women mourning lost husbands, lost fathers, lost brothers." Along the way he mastered pickup basketball on the run-down courts of his Pittsburgh neighborhood.

His grandmother looms large. Her long convalescence in a darkened upstairs bedroom of the family's house is related in detail, along with his pubescent exploration of sexuality, manifested in stolen peeks as she was bathed.

"Was I touched, a little crazy, maybe a lot wicked, to use the failing body of my grandmother as a prop, to steal from her dying flesh images of the woman my awakening twelve-year-old's sexuality desired?"

The line between revelation and self-absorption is thin, of course. Too frequently Hoop Roots descends into masturbatory ruminations, leaving the reader to feel like an uninvited guest at a therapy session.

Worse is Wideman's tiresome victimology. His world isn't simply black and white, it is White vs. Black Male (of which he is one and I am not). Some of his observations and his frustrations are powerful and poignant. Often, though, they are predictable and hyperbolic: "I'd feel great if I could forgive and forget. But I can't. Not yet. Not while they're still chopping us down and trying to stomp out the pieces."

This spawns several startling passages, such as a discussion of a childhood hero of his, an early NBA star, who was fatally injured in a fall during a game: "...whether it was motivated by any conscious desire to maim him or punish his color ... who can say."

Wideman can, and does, without presenting evidence the opposing player was motivated by race. This sort of accusation might help Wideman vent, but does little to enlighten.

Jon Morgan writes about sports issues for The Sun. He is the author of Glory for Sale: Fans, Dollars and the NFL, and Gaining a Yard: The Building of Baltimore's Football Stadium.

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